Official hopes to receive permit to dismantle rockets at Army Depot

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 11, 2012 

RICHMOND — An Army official said Tuesday he hopes to receive a state permit to separate the propellant sections from 44 nerve-agent rockets in 2014 at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.

If the permitting is granted by the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, the procedure will take place in February 2014, said Lt. Col. Christopher Grice, commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity at the depot.

It will take about a month to separate the propellant sections from the rockets, Grice said. A five-person team would unscrew the motor sections from the rocket assemblies inside a storage igloo.

If corrosion prevents the manual unscrewing, then the rocket won't be separated, Grice said.

Twenty-five of the rocket motors would be trucked to the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Picatinny, N.J. The other 14 would remain at Blue Grass Army Depot to await further testing.

All the warheads containing the GB and VX nerve agents would remain at the depot for eventual destruction at a pilot plant now under construction in Madison County. The plant is about 60 percent complete, officials said Tuesday.

The risk to the public will be minimal, said Craig Willaims, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea-based watchdog group that monitors issues related to the destruction of chemical weapons.

"I have confidence in what they're about to do," Williams said of the Army's proposal. "The real risk is for the workers inside the igloos that are doing the job, and God bless 'em. But the potential risk to the general population is not going to rise significantly from what it is today. The safety measures they are putting in place are extraordinary."

The igloos at the depot have ventilation systems that capture any vapor if nerve agent is released. The workers performing the separations would be dressed in protective clothing, and a medical response team will be on-site at all times.

A similar operation to separate motors from rockets was conducted at the depot in the 1980s, Grice said. Similar operations were also performed at two other weapons storage and disposal sites in Umatilla, Ore., and Pine Bluff, Ark.

"This has been done numerous times without incident," Grice told a group of citizens in Richmond on Tuesday afternoon.

Grice and Jeff Brubaker, project manager for the chemical-weapons plant under construction, said removal of the rocket motors is necessary to determine the best way for continued safe storage of the chemical weapons and for future destruction of the weapons.

The solid propellant is checked periodically because it can theoretically heat up and become volatile, which could pose a problem when stored in bulk, Grice said. The higher humidity in Central Kentucky summers causes some concern, although previous tests have shown no degradation of propellant, Grice said.

Brubaker said officials are trying to determine whether it makes more sense to destroy the rocket propellants at the depot or elsewhere.

Grice did not have an estimate on the cost of the operation to separate the propellant from the rockets. A team might be able to disassemble three rockets per day, he said.

Some 69,000 rockets made in the 1960s are stored at the depot south of Richmond. Artillery shells containing blister agent are also stored there. In all, Blue Grass stores 523 tons of chemical weapons.

The chemical weapons in Madison County are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre depot. Blue Grass has 2 percent of the country's original chemical stockpile.

Depot officials plan to hold a meeting in Richmond in January to receive public comment about the proposed operation.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305.Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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